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The BLM seeks public input after construction damaged some of Mill Canyon’s dinosaur tracks

Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, September 2017
Courtesy BLM Utah
A track at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, Sept. 26, 2017.

The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite near Moab is home to more than 200 dinosaur tracks. The prints crisscrossing the rock are 112 million years old and come from at least 10 different prehistoric creatures.

Earlier this year, construction damaged some of those precious tracks. Now, the Bureau of Land Management wants public input before they start the work up again.

The area is one of the most significant Early Cretaceous tracksites in the world. If you jumped in a time machine, you’d find a mud flat where a shallow lake was drying up. Seed ferns and conifers grew nearby. Dromaeosaurs, theropods, long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs and crocodiles roamed the area.

A layer of lime mud and algae made a very good surface to capture footprints. After tracks were made, more sediment was deposited on top, so there are tracks layered on top of one another.

The tracks weren’t made on the same day, but all the fossils are very fragile. Even walking directly on the tracks can damage them, which is why a boardwalk was installed to keep visitors at the historic site off the prints.

Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite
BLM Utah
The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite is found northwest of Moab, Utah.

On Jan. 25, 2022, the BLM began the removal of the boardwalk which it said was warped and presented a serious tripping hazard. Replacing it was necessary to protect the tracks and visitors.

However, people were concerned once construction began.

Artist Brian Engh and conservationist Jeremey Roberts posted a series of tweets depicting the damage they saw.

After public outcry regarding the project at the tracksite, the Center for Biological Diversity sent a cease and desist letter telling the BLM to stop work immediately.

Usually, the center works to save living species, said Great Basin Director Patrick Donnelly. But his organization saw this as such an obvious example of the BLM misusing resources that they felt the need to intervene.

“The original environmental assessment was a totally perfunctory document,” Donnelly said. “They had no expert involvement and the result was predictable. It was a disaster.”

The BLM listened to the calls to stop construction. It shut down the project on Jan. 31, after only two days of work, and requested a paleontological assessment.

After a month of gathering and comparing images, notes and observations, BLM Regional Paleontologist Brent H. Breithaupt released that assessment.

In his report, Breithaupt concludes that “damage to the tracks and traces as the result of impacts from construction activities appears minor. Unfortunately, little can be done to restore broken or eroded tracks left exposed.”

He also said small microfractures may have formed because of the weight of the machinery on the site, so the natural degradation of the tracks may be quickened.

The assessment outlines recommendations for the continuation of the project. One of them is to ask for public input, so that is what the BLM is doing now .

Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, the field manager at the BLM’s Moab office, said people raised concerns that the site’s access route had tracks and fossils on it.

“Even though that access route had been used to build the original boardwalk, over the years dirt had moved and more tracks were exposed,” She said.

The BLM has now marked three alternate access routes and is asking the public for input.

“We’ve identified what we think impacts may be,” Gaddis-Wyatt said, “and if there are other impacts, then we’d like to know.”

Another recommendation the BLM is following is getting a paleontological expert on site.

Gaddis-Wyatt said the Canyon County District doesn’t have a paleontologist on its staff, so it originally had its geologist go to the tracksite and survey the area instead. The geologist was supposed to flag areas to avoid, but the project started before she was able to.

“That’s something we’re going to be doing differently. We’re going to have a paleontologist from another district come out and actually be on-site from day one,” Gaddis-Wyatt said.

The public also raised concerns about concrete being poured on the tracksite to build the new boardwalk. Gaddis-Wyatt said concrete will not be poured on the tracks themselves. Instead, a raised boardwalk will be built with steel footing and a thin layer of concrete on top.

Written comments to provide feedback on this project are open until July 26. The BLM hopes to open the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite to the public again in the fall.

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